30 Seconds over White Flint

30 Seconds over White Flint

The bombing of Tokyo by Gen. Jimmy Doolittle’s carrier-launched B-25s (chronicled in the book and movie “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”) arguably changed the course of World War Two, even though they did insignificant damage. The same could be true of Friday’s recommendation by Council staff that only Phase One of the White Flint Plan be implemented.  

The news that the staff of the Montgomery County Council’s Committee on Planning, Housing and Economic Development had recommended killing the White Flint Plan (see post below) spread quickly and generated some heat. The usual opponents of the Plan generated ten letters asking the PHED Committee to “support the Council’s decision.” The White Flint Partnership generated 70 letters in opposition to the staff recommendation, and several other organizations also weighed in. More than 1200 people read my blog post explaining the problem (it was reprinted, so the number is probably higher).

But I have not asked the Friends of White Flint membership to write letters or contact the County Council on this point. Here’s why:

The recommendation came out on Friday (of a holiday weekend to boot). This weekend, there have been intense discussions between the Council staff, County executive’s office, planning staff, and members of groups which are influential in this debate, culminating in a packed-room conference. A few points have emerged:

First, this fight is over 30 seconds. Well, actually 32 seconds. That is the difference between a trip on the existing Rockville Pike (“LOS-D”), and the worst case scenario of Rockville Pike 30 years from now (“LOS-E”): some traffic models says it will take about 32 seconds longer to drive from Grosvenor to Twinbrook in the year 2030. So when we say the outmoded traffic tests (see post below for a more detailed explanation) that will kill the White Flint Plan are about moving cars through intersections “faster,” we’re really talking about 30 seconds faster. But in order to get those 30 seconds, Council staff has recommended that the White Flint Plan be delayed, or built only through Phase One (of three).

Second, the problem’s not IN White Flint, but in North Bethesda generally. There are only two nearby areas which will (in thirty years) cause drivers to slow: Montrose at 270 and Rockville Pike south of Edson Lane. Both are outside of the White Flint area, but because the automobile-oriented “balance” tests of White Flint also measure those areas, White Flint suffers. In fact, ironically, those same tests show that increasing density dramatically in White Flint will have very little effect on traffic congestion within White Flint (something the Plan’s opponents seem to have trouble understanding even while they’re hooting about the need to reduce density IN White Flint). So if even the automobile-oriented tests just looked at White Flint, there wouldn’t be an issue, but they still view White Flint as just some place to be traveled through.

Third, doing only the first phase of the Plan will kill it, politically and financially. As I discussed in an earlier post, what property owner will agree to tax themselves (as they have in the Plan) if they don’t have the confidence that the projects will continue past the first few years. And the view is no better from the residents: as a resident put it in a meeting this morning: “so my residents will see everything torn down, but nothing rebuilt?” One proposal was to impose new taxes on development, whether or not the property owners agree; but, for a County strapped for new business, is that realistic? “Hi, Northrop Grumman. Come on in. And pay these new taxes.”

Fourth, delaying the Plan will kill it. Developers have made clear that they and their financiers will simply not fund the big projects necessary to transform White Flint if the Plan is delayed. You can easily see why, just by looking down the Pike. At Mid-Pike Plaza, for example, leases have not been renewed, or have been let for a short period of time, just so the owners can have the flexibility to make the improvements promised in the White Flint Sector Plan. But that window won’t stay open forever, and once those spaces are put into long-term leases, they will be lost to sustainable, transit-friendly construction; we’ll just have more of the same parking lots. The cars will win.

But the most important thing to come out of all these meetings is that no one seems interested in killing the White Flint Plan. Even the die-hard opponents’ letters don’t argue for building only Phase One. As someone said this morning, everyone’s looking for a way out of this box.

The problem is that the Council did not, in fact, fix the problem with the old Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (“growth policy”) last fall. Under pressure from a state-mandated deadline, the Council unanimously adopted the same old automobile-oriented tests. The Council staff (and Executive) can’t ignore that vote. They have to use those tests, even if everyone realizes they are completely out of place in a transit-oriented, urban-style development such as White Flint.

And, as I’ve been mentioning, they, and the Planning staff working with them, are really trying hard to reconcile the irreconcileable. They’ve been working for over a month to find a solution, and no deus ex machina has appeared. All of these great minds have not come up with a solution that can meld the two theories of car speed and sustainable development.

So the solution will have to come from the Council itself. Will White Flint die to give cars 30 seconds more? Or will the Council recognize that they should probably not use car-oriented tests in a transit-oriented 21st-century Plan?

To put it another way: cars or carbon. 

If you have a preference — cars or transit — by all means, tell your Councilmembers about it. I think the Council is well aware of that choice. I’m not sure that pressuring them will add much. That’s why I haven’t asked people to mass-mail the Council, even though it’s been recommended.

We’ll re-evaluate after tomorrow’s PHED Committee meeting. Then we’ll know whether some of the most brilliant minds on the Council (Councilmembers Knapp, Floreen and Elrich, usually assisted by Berliner, who sits in with the Committee on White Flint Plan meetings) can wrestle this problem into a harness that will work for everyone.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall

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